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When Things Go Wrong: Crisis Management

Nick Thomas 140


Part 14: Perspectives on Safety in Yachting
To see the full schedule click here.

There is plenty of good advice on the prevention of incidents in this series of articles on safety in yachtingat sea. The age old adage of “prevention is better than a cure” has to be the gold standard when considering the risks, however small, that are part and parcel of operating a yacht.

Despite well thought out safety standards and increased training opportunities for crew, incidents will happen and one doesn’t have to go too far to find them, reported and unreported. 

In this article I recommend an integrated approach, where all levels of management work together to deal with both the immediate and subsequent impacts of what initially may seem a small incident that invariably has the potential to evolve into a full blown crisis. Whatever the situation, we need to be ready.

As highlighted in previous articles it is near impossible to draw on lessons identified from previous incidents as very little, if anything, is in the public domain. I note that in some industries forums exist for sharing information regarding threats, best practice, lessons identified and so on. Perhaps this is something the superyacht community could explore further? So I draw on personal experience and the lessons I have learnt, some painful, as a crisis manager.

What is a Crisis?

There are many definitions as to what constitutes a crisis. My take is that it is an abnormal situation beyond the scope of everyday operations, which threatens the safety and welfare of people (clients and crew), operational delivery, management, reputation and ultimately business.

From my experience it is a situation in which one finds oneself operating in a fast moving, escalating situation, dealing with unpredictable issues and impacts, whilst being observed and commented on by a wide range of stakeholders that could include international press and media, “armchair experts” national and international authorities and dependent on business arrangements either the management company or family office, insurers, owners, lawyers, clients and crew and the general public to name a few.

crisis Pixabay 600

As a decision maker you can feel isolated and sometimes overwhelmed in a crisis situation. You will have to make timely decisions that will potentially have a major impact on individuals directly and indirectly , as well as the wider industry and by the nature of crisis some of those decisions will have to be made quickly and often on scarce and sometimes conflicting information.

How does this differ from an incident? An incident is widely accepted as an event which is dealt with through predefined operating procedures. So a fire on board is an incident unless you are in a tightly packed marina and the fire spreads to boats alongside, which I would say is a crisis as the impacts are potentially beyond the control of your standard operating procedures.

How do you Manage a Crisis?

The old adage “prior preparation and planning prevents a poor performance” is a good start point and one should look to establish pre-planned procedures based on the recommended principles for crisis management:

  • Preparedness – Teams and individuals should be properly prepared for their roles and responsibilities and, in particular, familiar with the plans and procedures.

  • Continuity – Response to crisis should be based on existing functions and familiar ways of working. This will assist the decision making and response coordination in an unfamiliar and high pressured atmosphere of a crisis.

  • Subsidiarity – Authority is given for decision making at the lowest appropriate level, with coordination conducted at the highest necessary level.

  • Direction – Clear direction is delivered through the awareness of the strategic aims and objectives for the response. This direction enables those managing the response to effectively prioritise and focus their response.

  • Integration - Integration that delivers effective co-ordination between the Strategic, Tactical and Operational levels of response to a crisis. This involves a clear understanding on the respective roles and responsibilities at each level.

  • Communications - Good internal and external communications enable an effective response. It enables timely passing of information and dissemination of decisions. Communications need to be both timely and targeted to ensure the right recipients get the right information within an acceptable timeframe.

  • Co-operation - Mutual trust and understanding between the levels of response (Strategic, Tactical and Operational) as well as external responders. This co-operation is developed through training and exercises which provide the opportunity for teams to work together.

  • Anticipation - Decision makers, at all levels of the response, need to anticipate and manage the impacts of a range of risks. They need to identify both actual and potential risks and their direct and indirect consequences. Proactive decision making is key to a successful resolution and often will have to be delivered with scarce or partial information under time pressure in a fast moving, evolving situation with conflicting priorities.

Katie 16 porthole

What Should be in the Crisis Management Plan?

The first step is to understand the environment.

  • Where you are operating 

  • Who are you dependent on to enable your yacht operations . Consider and list who your operating partners are, for example; port and maritime authorities, local emergency responders, yacht agents etc. 

Once you have collated this information you should conduct a risk assessment on your business operations to identify and analyse (likelihood and impact) the threats you face. The outcome is the understanding of the level of risk and the risk treatment measures required.

Once we understand the context and risks we can develop a plan. No incident will be the same and therefore the plan should provide a framework for your response.

Ideally this will include:

  • Crisis Response Organisation identifying the levels of command and control. For example:

Crisis Slide 1


  • Roles and Responsibilities at each level.

  • Immediate actions (Incident Response Plan).

  • Crisis Management Triggers for the escalation from incident management to full crisis management (Crisis management Plan).

  • Activation process.

  • Information flow/internal and external communications.

  • Incident flow chart.

  • Actions On and responsibilities.

  • Communications Strategy (Communications Plan).

  • Continuity and Recovery contingencies (Continuity and Recovery Plan). In a competitive market it is also vital to maintain current operations as the reality is that however small the incident it will disrupt day to day normal activity to sustain an acceptable level of business, operations and reputation.

  • Contact list.

Those are some of the elements that I would recommend are required. I have referred to other plans within the Crisis Management Plan.

In outline the plan landscape will look like this:

Crisis Slide 2 So What Happens When Something Goes Wrong?

It is often quoted that “No plan survives first contact”. The reality is that you cannot plan for every risk and outcome, but without it I can assure you that the first critical hour (and possibly longer) will be spent working out who does what and how, potentially endangering your people, assets, business, operations and reputation! Using the framework above you can ensure a far more effective and timely response rather than wasting time deciding who does what and when.

In the following flowchart I will bring some order to the chaos that one faces:

Immediate actions / standard operating procedures carried out by the crew as directed by the Captain (Operational Team).


Captain informs:
Emergency responders as required.
Management Company/ Family Office 24/7 point of contact. 

Management Company/ Family Office informs:
Company Directors/ Owner (Strategic).
Tactical Team. 
Other operational partners as required.


Based on information provided by the Captain, the Tactical point of contact, in consultation with Management assesses the wider impacts and decides:

Has the situation met the threshold and escalated to a crisis?

  • YES: activates the Crisis Management Plan and calls in the Tactical Team and informs other operational partners.

  • NO: maintain a monitor on the situation with regular updates from the Captain. The situation may change based on information provided.

Open an Incident Log to record all information, decisions and actions.

Crisis Managment 
Ongoing Incident Management by the Captain and crew with regular information updates.

Strategic level issue direction including priorities for crisis management, continuity and recovery of operations. Directs the external communications strategy.

Tactical team activate and coordinate crisis management contingencies to meet the priorities and deliver the communications strategy. Maintains information flows, both internal and external. 

Post CrrisisMaintain support to those directly affected.
Conduct a review of  all decisions and actions taken.
Review and amend plans and procedures based on lessons identified   


On shore 24/7 point of contact: I am assuming this is either the Company DPA or Yacht Agent. 
Decision Point: The decision as to whether the incident has escalated to crisis is not an easy call as there is a perceived danger of over-reaction to what is “only an incident”. My advice is that this decision should be made in consultation with all levels of response when possible. By activating a full crisis response you are guaranteed that all remain informed so in the longer term no one can be taken by surprise.

Crisis Response Timeline and Concurrent Activities:

Response chart

Post Crisis: When can you go back to 'business as usual'?

Again, another tricky decision as there are potentially several longer term impacts that need to be managed, for example counselling of those affected, continual reputation management, inquiry, court case, insurance claim etc. One thing you should do is conduct a post incident review to identify lessons and, please address the lessons, often they are identified but not learnt!

In summary…

In the perfect world one would expect organisations that operate in a high risk environment to have clear crisis management procedures in place that are reviewed and tested regularly with appropriately trained responders at all levels of the organisation. In truth this is seldom the case. Having a plan will enable you to be proactive rather than reactive and be better placed to protect your people, assets, business and ultimately reputation. I leave you with the following questions:

  • Do you have a crisis management plan?

  • Does your crisis management team understand their roles and responsibilities?

  • How often do you exercise/ test your crisis management team and does anyone test you? 

  • Could you confidently stand in a Coroner’s court and state that you had done everything possible to prevent an incident and resolve it as best you possibly could?

About the Author 

Nick Thomas is Risk Consultancy Manager at Securewest International. Nick has been involved developing and delivering risk prevention, mitigation and handling strategies to a range of organisations in the public and private sectors. His crisis management planning experience was enhanced during time in the UK Government Cabinet Office Civil Contingencies Secretariat (CCS) as an operations director preparing for and responding to national crisis.

Nick has developed and delivered an integrated approach to Risk, Crisis, and Business Continuity Management covering all operational phases, preparation, response, continuity and recovery to enhance organisational resilience in the ever increasing threat landscape.

Securewest International is a leading global maritime security company and an innovative leader in risk management. The company has provided risk consultancy services since 1987 through offices in the UK, South East Asia, USA and Africa. Securewest has developed a capability to assist the yacht industry in preparing for, responding to, and recovering from the range of risks and crises that the industry may encounter.

*Image credits: Crisis Pixabay; Katie Jane Howson; Securewest

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